Brothers purchase Italian Underground in Glenwood Springs
New owners hope to rekindle old recipes with help from long-serving staff
Below the Grand Avenue Bridge, beneath the historic Silver Club Building, beyond the Italian Underground’s tables draped in red- and white-checkered cloth, blue flames roasted Ben Heyliger’s pasta skillet.
A bottle of Pinot Grigio in hand, Ben’s 25-year-old brother, Web, relinquished the wine as a final ingredient for Ben’s pasta sauce.
“This is our mother’s meat sauce,” Ben, 29, said, containing more than a hint of excitement as he shuffled the skillet’s ingredients. “Well, it’s been in our family for generations, but it’s the one our mother always made us as kids.”
The two brothers purchased the Underground from Jeanie and Tim Lucas last year, reopening the restaurant Jan. 1 with their parents’ help.
“Our dad really encouraged us to seize this opportunity,” Web said. “Ben and I have been in the restaurant business for 10 years, and this is the next step — to be our own boss.”
Their mother and newly appointed restaurant manager, Cathy, said she was initially hesitant when her husband pitched the idea.
“But, after thinking on it, I realized this is absolutely something we can do,” Cathy said. “And, it’s something we can do together.”
Intent on reigniting the flavors pioneered by the Underground’s founders, the Durretts, Ben and Web plan to promote a menu that will remind people of simpler times.
“We used to come here as kids,” Ben reminisced. “And learning the Durrett’s cookbook was still here was the cherry on top of us purchasing the business.”
Learning the ropes
Prior to the purchase, Ben spent years working the front end of restaurants throughout the valley and in Breckenridge.
“I was tired of being in the front of the house,” he said. “Years ago, I trained under chefs at several restaurants around Glenwood Springs through a Colorado Mountain College program, and I’m having a blast putting that knowledge to use.”
A self-described “pasta fanatic,” Ben said he plans to experiment with adding different menu items, such as saltimbocca, carbonara and chicken picatta.
Meanwhile, Web is taking on the mantle of front-end manager.
“I’ve learned more in the past couple weeks than I have in all my previous years combined,” Web said. “There’s so much more that I can do than I ever gave myself credit for.”
Before purchasing the Underground, Web dodged manager positions when pushed to apply by previous employers. Not so much because he didn’t have ideas for how to run a section, but rather, Web said if he was going to be in charge, he wanted things done to his standards — not to those of an absentee boss.
Web plans to cross-train staff, ensuring efficiency and high-quality service for diners.
“I’ve seen it in too many restaurants,” Web said. “Bussers who can’t ring up a customer, servers who can’t seat a table and so on. If everyone is trained in multiple tasks, it helps keep the front of the house flowing.”
Burning the sauce
Back in the kitchen, Ben directed deliveries coming in the rear entrance while discussing the night’s food prep with José Bustillo, who’s worked in the Underground kitchen for more than 20 years.
The conversation was in Spanish, so Web returned to his paperwork at a pre-set table close to the eatery’s rustic bar.
“Ben being bilingual has been a huge benefit for us,” he noted before scrolling through a spreadsheet.
Like Bustillo, multiple members of the kitchen crew speak primarily Spanish and have worked at the restaurant for years, regardless of ownership changes. That consistency is the foundation Ben said he hopes to build the new Underground menu upon.
For her role, Cathy said she helps with whatever her sons need, whether prepping food, planning payroll or, on at least one occasion, burning the meat sauce passed down to her by her Italian grandfather, Anselmo.
“The first day I made it here, I burned 20 gallons of sauce,” she recalled, chuckling. “It was 6 o’clock at night, and I had to make it, again, staying here until 11. I spent most of the evening crying.”
Regardless of the hiccup, the family said their first month in business together has reinforced their faith in each other and the business plan.
“The community said they would support us, and of course, that’s something you hear all the time, but wow,” Ben said. “That first night, every table was filled with people we knew. And, they keep coming back.”
Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.